Nomadland (2020)
Nomadland (2020)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 48 min.

Release Date: December 4th, 2020 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Chloe Zhao Actors: Frances McDormand, David Strathairn, Swankie, Bob Wells, Tay Strathairn, Patricia Grier




t the end of January 2011, a reduced demand for sheetrock caused the U.S. Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada to shut down – after a whopping 88 years in business. Having been a staple of the community – and, essentially, it’s only job source – by July, that city’s zip code (89405) was discontinued. Fern (Frances McDormand) is one such former employee, who is forced to pack up her belongings into her van (dubbed Vanguard) and hit the road to an RV park in a neighboring area, with dwindling prospects and an uncertain future awaiting her.

Fern does acquire a temporary, menial position at an Amazon shipping facility, providing her with decent income, but it’s not enough to prevent friends and acquaintances from worrying about her living arrangements. “I’m not homeless. I’m just houseless.” Ultimately, she wishes to keep moving along as well, but landing other jobs in the region proves to be incredibly difficult, pushing her toward either early retirement (the benefits aren’t likely enough for her to survive) or becoming a beginner nomad (a van dweller) – a journey that takes her into the middle of an Arizona desert, where she meets legions of elderly people in similar situations, suffering from changing economic times in which governmental aid is negligible, traditional retirement is virtually nonexistent, and new careers are impossible.

Aside from McDormand, the multitude of supporting roles at the start feel as if non-actors, pulled from the very locations where filming took place (and, indeed, many are, as this is not an unlikely nor unheard-of artistic concept). This lends a welcome authenticity to the environments and interactions, though no one can take the spotlight away from McDormand, who is never better than when she’s communicating solely through expressions and silent reflections in moments of solitude. Frequently, she manages to seamlessly blend into the normalcy of background personas, while still remaining the emotional center of – and a witness to – a rather tragic, eye-opening tale of abandoned souls in forgotten towns.

“You can die out there. You’re out in the wilderness.” Despite Fern’s entire existence presenting a sense of desperation and depression and distress (with ruminating on grief and loss and the dearly departed), there are still little ups and downs to be encountered – ranging from minimal things like digestive issues and more trying ordeals like a flat tire, to musical entertainment at nearby establishments and tours of scenic locales. Throughout, “Nomadland” maintains a documentary approach, observing the minutia of ordinary routines and trivial actions, which imparts astounding realism but minimal entertainment value – not unlike “Roma” from 2018. As if attempting to duplicate that experiment, but with a shifted setting, dwelling on the contemplative and intimate details of a terribly plain assortment of people, “Nomadland” stays exceptionally small and simple – and uncommonly un-cinematic. As a practically invasive character study, McDormand’s acting chops win out (following her somewhat random movement through life, like a modernized “Five Easy Pieces”); but as a complete picture, it’s largely lacking, even with a hint of a love story creeping up toward the finale. There just isn’t enough going on, made more disappointing when no unforgettably potent (or even moderately sentimental) sequences arise to mark an indelible piece of filmmaking.

– Mike Massie

  • 4/10